9. Food and feeding to improve photo-opportunities

Feeding birds is a familiar concept amongst birdwatchers and has a role to play in bird photography too. Subjects can be enticed to visit locations of your choosing, and in ways that improve your ability to shoot with composition, lighting and background in mind. Obviously you need to tailor the food to suit the bird, so an understanding and appreciation of dietary requirements and feeding habits will improve your chances of success. But there is also a darker side to the feeding of birds purely for photography; the ethical aspects of bird-feeding will be touched upon here but tackled in more detail in another article later in the series.

a.       Garden feeders

Many people feed birds in the garden using a variety of products and feeding equipment to cater for the needs of as wide a range of species as possible. These options range from sunflower and seed-feeders, to fat-ball dispensers and half-coconut shells. And there is the option of scattering food on the ground – windfall apples and seed mix. With this range of methods deployed, many gardens have the potential to host a dozen or more bird species in good numbers; typically more are present in winter than summer.

   Attracting birds to your feeders is the easy part but taking pictures worthy of the effort requires thought. With nervous birds, use a portable hide although the downside is that it restricts your viewing options. As an alternative, if you regularly sit quietly near the feeders with your camera set up, over a period of days or weeks most birds will become accustomed to your presence.

   If you are content to take birds sitting or perching on artificial feeders then photography is straightforward. But with a bit of imagination and planning you can end up with images that look like they were taken in the wild. Place natural twigs and branches adjacent to the feeding ports of a feeder, for example, and hungry birds will queue up and perch briefly. Be sure to think about the choice of perch though and, using clamps, if you can mimic the twig’s orientation in nature then so much the better.

   Use fieldcraft and natural history insight to be creative. As an example, you might consider collecting a bag of Teasel seeds in late summer, and keeping them dry until late winter. Scatter them onto a dry Teasel head, shake it a bit, and they will naturally lodge in the seedhead’s cavities. Placed in the garden this will be an irresistible source of food for Goldfinches and produce natural-looking photographic results. Drill holes in a branch and plug them with peanuts, for Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Nuthatches.

This Blue Tit was photographed as it approached a winter feeding station, with its perch framed by appropriate placement of foliage. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

This Blue Tit was photographed as it approached a winter feeding station, with its perch framed by appropriate placement of foliage. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Concealed drilled holes containing peanuts were all the enticement this Great Spotted Woodpecker needed for a photogenic visit to the garden. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Concealed drilled holes containing peanuts were all the enticement this Great Spotted Woodpecker needed for a photogenic visit to the garden. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

b.       Seed mixes winter finches and buntings

Although some finch and bunting species will visit feeders, many prefer to feed on a table, or on the ground as they would in nature. Scatter seeds and grain but perhaps experiment with twig perches overhanging any concentration of food, or an adjacent mossy log.

Before they begin feeding, Siskins will often perch momentarily on a strategic perch that allows them to observe proceedings, and potential danger.  ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Before they begin feeding, Siskins will often perch momentarily on a strategic perch that allows them to observe proceedings, and potential danger. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

c.       Mealworms

Understandably, mealworms (Yellow Mealworm Beetle larvae, Tenebrio molitor) are an irresistible source of food for insect-eating birds. Although not strictly speaking native to Britain (they come southern Europe) it is hard to imagine too many adverse consequences of using them to attract birds, assuming your own ethical code allows you to use these live animals for personal gratification. And in the grand scheme of things, the environmental consequences of a few mealworms escaping into the wild are probably trivial. But the industrial scale of mealworm use at certain notorious feeding ‘events’ is harder to justify. And the use of so-called Morio worms (Zophobus morio, from the Americas) is irresponsible if there is a chance these alien worms will escape into the wild.

At a few locations in Britain, birds have become accustomed to being fed mealworms. The most surprising individual to have made use of this technique is this now-famous Cuckoo. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

At a few locations in Britain, birds have become accustomed to being fed mealworms. The most surprising individual to have made use of this technique is this now-famous Cuckoo. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

d.       Animals as bait

Given that some bird species are either active predators, opportunistic scavengers or both, it is hardly surprising that animals are sometimes used to attract these species; here, the term ‘animal’ is taken to mean vertebrates –fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. There are few who would object to the use of a roadkill rabbit or deer to attract, for example, Buzzards. But the use of live animals raises all sorts of ethical issues and fuels intense and passionate debate. Using a tank of live Minnows or sticklebacks is a tried and tested way of attracting Kingfishers, but is condemned in certain circles on ethical and environmental grounds. The use of dead mice, deployed like fishing lures to attract and photograph northern owl species in the winter, polarises opinions too.

: It is relatively easy to attract Buzzards to feed on roadkill Rabbits. But encouraging raptors to feed on carcasses away from roads does have a dark side: poisoned carrion is used to illegally kill raptors. So avoid the technique if you live in an area where this might happen. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

: It is relatively easy to attract Buzzards to feed on roadkill Rabbits. But encouraging raptors to feed on carcasses away from roads does have a dark side: poisoned carrion is used to illegally kill raptors. So avoid the technique if you live in an area where this might happen. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Rob Read